The Museum of Scotland's new centre for schools takes children on a hands-on trip to their past, writes Gillian Macdonald
Where on earth was Scotland in the Jurassic period? What happens when you put a compass close to a piece of magnetite? Which materials would survive 1,000 years buried in a Viking grave, and why?
For children who never stop asking questions - and others who may not yet know how to formulate them - Edinburgh's newly-opened Museum of Scotland is a treasure trove of discovery. Starting in the basement, the pre-history gallery has great rocks to be stroked, and pieces of foam rubber you can squeeze in a vice, forcing it into folds that show how the Caledonian mountains were formed. The hands-on approach ensures children's senses are constantly stimulated.
Throughout the galleries, information panels draw attention to the archaeological and written evidence used to reconstruct a period of history. But as visitors move away from the sturdy rocks and fossils, up through Early People and the Kingdom of the Scots to Industry and Empire and the 20th Century, a growing number of "do not touch" signs and glass cases protect the more delicate and precious exhibits. So it is with some delight that children arrive in the discovery centre on the third floor, which has just opened to schools.
The room is divided into five sections - Lost Worlds, Roman Invaders, Vikings, Kingdom of the Scots and Scots on the Move, with staff on hand to help children explore. Here children get a feel for the way we reconstruct the past. They can piece together a jigsaw of the world in the Jurassic period, unpack a Roman soldier's kitbag, grind grain into flour using a millstone, dress up as Mary Queen of Scots, or rummage around in an old kist to find what a 19th-century family of emigrants might have taken with them. They can play with a gird and cleek, have a game of peever or study famous Scottish inventors.
The place is buzzing with activity as a P5 class from Tollcross Primary descends on it for the first time. The Romans seem particularly popular, with eager children dressing up as soldiers, trying out shields and wielding swords, listening to the blast of an ancient carnyx war trumpet, or writing with a stylus on wax tablets.
On the other side of a partition, a small group stands transfixed by the most moving exhibit - a glass tomb harbouring the 1,000-year-old skeleton of a 12-year-old Viking boy, curled up with his favourite possessions around him. Behind the children is a reconstruction of the boy's head, made with help from the radiology department at Edinburgh's Western General Hospital, medical engineers in Belgium and the Newcastle Dental Hospital.
Alongside the glass tomb , children can plunge their hands into pockets containing replicas of objects found in the grave and consider which would have survived 1,000 years and why, or study a longship burial on an interactive computer screen, zooming in on items of interest.
Their teacher, Janice Spowart, says these children studied the Romans and Vikings when they were younger, so this is an exciting rediscovery of the past.
Some of the others, the girls in particular, are more enthused by the section on Mary Queen of Scots, whom they have just finished studying. "I could answer all the questions," exclaims one young student, delighted with her achievement. Her friend is happy floating around in an elegant child-size gown of the period. Others are reconstructing an earthenware pot from broken fragments, and deciding where best to build their castle - on a hilltop, beside a river or in among the trees.
Dressing up and handling artefacts are increasingly popular in historical houses or castles, and always appeal to children. But most impressive here is the imaginative combination of historical inquiry with hands-on activities linked to the magnificent collection on all floors of the museum.
A standard school visit lasts two hours, starting in the discovery centre and moving out to related exhibits in the main galleries. For those who can't get into Edinburgh, a travelling discovery centre will set out in May or June, taking a taste of the museum to other parts of Scotland.
For further information contact Elspeth Mackay on 0131 247 4180, bookings on 0131 247 4041
JOIN OUR SCOTS DICTIONARY
Do you want your primary school to contribute to TES Scotland's national dictionary of Scots words and sayings, compiled by children for children? Entries must be in by March 31. For full details, contact TES Scotland Millennium Dictionary, Scott House, 10 South St Andrew Street, Edinburgh EH2 2AZ, tel: 0131 557 1133, fax: 0131 558 1155.
Teachers interested in visiting the industrial heritage village of New Lanark may wish to introduce pupils to a novel by Judith O'Neill, "Spindle River", and enjoy it themselves.
Part of the Cambridge Reading Scheme, it tells the story of a Caithness mother and her children, who move to New Lanark in search of work at the cotton mills in 1819. The youngest children attend the village school, while the older ones are allocated duties at the mill and in the household of social reformer Robert Owen, attending school in the evenings. Details of the lifestyle abound, from crowded workers' cottages to the master's household and escapades in the nearby woods. A glossary of Scots words and technical terms is included.
The education officer for New Lanark, Lorna Davidson, can be contacted on 01555 661345.
SCOTTISH WRITING TODAY
A set of six A3 posters on contemporary Scottish writing is available from the Scottish Book Trust. They feature Aonghas MacNeacail, A L Kennedy, Iain Banks, Jackie Kay, Alan Spence and Angus Owens. Each poster includes an excerpt from the work of one of the writers, a short biography and details of other works. Copies have been sent to all secondary schools in Scotland. Further copies are available for the cost of post and packaging, from the Scottish Book Trust, 137 Dundee Street, Edinburgh EH11 1BG, tel: 0131 229 3663.
A free teaching pack on the 17th-century attempt by Scots to establish a trading colony in Panama has been sent to all Scottish schools. Further copies of the pack for nine to 14-year-olds, based on Royal Bank of Scotland archive material, are available from the archive department, tel: 0171 615 6127.